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NEWS FEATURE

SEX
REDEFINED
THE IDEA OF TWO SEXES IS SIMPLISTIC.
BIOLOGISTS NOW THINK THERE IS A
WIDER SPECTRUM THAN THAT.

BY CLAIRE AINSWORTH

s a clinical geneticist, Paul James is accustomed to discussing some


of the most delicate issues with his patients. But in early 2010, he
found himself having a particularly awkward conversation about
sex.
A 46-year-old pregnant woman had visited his clinic at the Royal
Melbourne Hospital in Australia to hear the results of an amniocentesis
test to screen her babys chromosomes for abnormalities. The baby was
fine but follow-up tests had revealed something astonishing about
the mother. Her body was built of cells from two individuals, probably from twin embryos that had merged in her own mothers womb.
And there was more. One set of cells carried two X chromosomes, the
complement that typically makes a person female; the other had an X
and a Y. Halfway through her fifth decade and pregnant with her third
child, the woman learned for the first time that a large part of her body
was chromosomally male1. Thats kind of science-fiction material for
someone who just came in for an amniocentesis, says James.
Sex can be much more complicated than it at first seems. According to
the simple scenario, the presence or absence of a Y chromosome is what
counts: with it, you are male, and without it, you are female. But doctors have long known that some people straddle the boundary their
sex chromosomes say one thing, but their gonads (ovaries or testes) or
sexual anatomy say another. Parents of children with these kinds of conditions known as intersex conditions, or differences or disorders of
sex development (DSDs) often face difficult decisions about whether
to bring up their child as a boy or a girl. Some researchers now say that
as many as 1 person in 100 has some form of DSD2.
When genetics is taken into consideration, the boundary between the

sexes becomes even blurrier. Scientists have identified many of the genes
involved in the main forms of DSD, and have uncovered variations in
these genes that have subtle effects on a persons anatomical or physiological sex. Whats more, new technologies in DNA sequencing and cell biology are revealing that almost everyone is, to varying degrees, a patchwork
of genetically distinct cells, some with a sex that might not match that of
the rest of their body. Some studies even suggest that the sex of each cell
drives its behaviour, through a complicated network of molecular interactions. I think theres much greater diversity within male or female,
and there is certainly an area of overlap where some people cant easily
define themselves within the binary structure, says John Achermann,
who studies sex development and endocrinology at University College
Londons Institute of Child Health.
These discoveries do not sit well in a world in which sex is still defined
in binary terms. Few legal systems allow for any ambiguity in biological
sex, and a persons legal rights and social status can be heavily influenced
by whether their birth certificate says male or female.
The main problem with a strong dichotomy is that there are intermediate cases that push the limits and ask us to figure out exactly where
the dividing line is between males and females, says Arthur Arnold at
the University of California, Los Angeles, who studies biological sex
differences. And thats often a very difficult problem, because sex can
be defined a number of ways.

THE START OF SEX

That the two sexes are physically different is obvious, but at the start of life,
it is not. Five weeks into development, a human embryo has the potential
to form both male and female anatomy. Next to the developing kidneys,
two bulges known as the gonadal ridges emerge alongside two pairs of

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ILLUSTRATION BY JONNY WAN

ducts, one of which can form the uterus and Fallopian tubes, and the other
the male internal genital plumbing: the epididymes, vas deferentia and
seminal vesicles. At six weeks, the gonad switches on the developmental
pathway to become an ovary or a testis. If a testis develops, it secretes
testosterone, which supports the development of the male ducts. It also
makes other hormones that force the presumptive uterus and Fallopian
tubes to shrink away. If the gonad becomes an ovary, it makes oestrogen,
and the lack of testosterone causes the male plumbing to wither. The sex
hormones also dictate the development of the external genitalia, and they
come into play once more at puberty, triggering the development of secondary sexual characteristics such as breasts or facial hair.
Changes to any of these processes can have dramatic effects on an
individuals sex. Gene mutations affecting gonad development can
result in a person with XY chromosomes developing typically female
characteristics, whereas alterations in hormone signalling can cause XX
individuals to develop along male lines.
For many years, scientists believed that female development was the
default programme, and that male development was actively switched
on by the presence of a particular gene on the Y chromosome. In 1990,
researchers made headlines when they uncovered the identity of this
gene3,4, which they called SRY. Just by itself, this gene can switch the
gonad from ovarian to testicular development. For example, XX individuals who carry a fragment of the Y chromosome that contains SRY
develop as males.
By the turn of the millennium, however, the idea
of femaleness being a passive default option had
NATURE.COM
been toppled by the discovery of genes that actively For a podcast on the
promote ovarian development and suppress the tes- sex spectrum, see:
ticular programme such as one called WNT4. go.nature.com/xowzq5

XY individuals with extra copies of this gene can develop atypical genitals and gonads, and a rudimentary uterus and Fallopian tubes5. In 2011,
researchers showed6 that if another key ovarian gene, RSPO1, is not working normally, it causes XX people to develop an ovotestis a gonad with
areas of both ovarian and testicular development.
These discoveries have pointed to a complex process of sex determination, in which the identity of the gonad emerges from a contest between
two opposing networks of gene activity. Changes in the activity or
amounts of molecules (such as WNT4) in the networks can tip the balance
towards or away from the sex seemingly spelled out by the chromosomes.
It has been, in a sense, a philosophical change in our way of looking at
sex; that its a balance, says Eric Vilain, a clinician and the director of
the Center for Gender-Based Biology at the University of California, Los
Angeles. Its more of a systems-biology view of the world of sex.

BATTLE OF THE SEXES

According to some scientists, that balance can shift long after develop
ment is over. Studies in mice suggest that the gonad teeters between being
male and female throughout life, its identity requiring constant maintenance. In 2009, researchers reported7 deactivating an ovarian gene called
Foxl2 in adult female mice; they found that the granulosa cells that support
the development of eggs transformed into Sertoli cells, which support
sperm development. Two years later, a separate team showed8 the opposite: that inactivating a gene called Dmrt1 could turn adult testicular cells
into ovarian ones. That was the big shock, the fact that it was going on
post-natally, says Vincent Harley, a geneticist who studies gonad development at the MIMR-PHI Institute for Medical Research in Melbourne.
The gonad is not the only source of diversity in sex. A number of DSDs
are caused by changes in the machinery that responds to hormonal
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NEWS FEATURE

THE SEX SPECTRUM


A typical male has XY
chromosomes, and a typical
female has XX. But owing to
genetic variation or chance
events in development, some
people do not fit neatly into
either category. Some are
classed as having differences or
disorders of sex development
(DSDs), in which their sex
chromosomes do not match
their sexual anatomy.

Chromosomes
Gonads
Genitals
Other
characteristics/
examples

Typical male

Subtle variations

Moderate variations

46,XY DSD

XY

XY

XY

XY

Testes

Testes

Testes

Testes

Male internal
and external
genitals

Male internal and


external genitals

Male external
genitals with
anatomical
variations such as
urethral opening on
underside of penis.

Often ambiguous

Male
secondary
sexual
characteristics

signals from the gonads and other glands. Complete androgen insensitivity syndrome, or CAIS, for example, arises when a persons cells are
deaf to male sex hormones, usually because the receptors that respond
to the hormones are not working. People with CAIS have Ychromosomes and internal testes, but their external genitalia are female, and
they develop as females at puberty.
Conditions such as these meet the medical definition of DSDs, in which
an individuals anatomical sex seems to be at odds with their chromosomal or gonadal sex. But they are rare affecting about 1 in 4,500 people9. Some researchers now say that the definition should be widened to
include subtle variations of anatomy such as mild hypospadias, in which
a mans urethral opening is on the underside of his penis rather than at the
tip. The most inclusive definitions point to the figure of 1 in 100 people
having some form of DSD, says Vilain (see The sex spectrum).
But beyond this, there could be even more variation. Since the 1990s,
researchers have identified more than 25 genes involved in DSDs, and
next-generation DNA sequencing in the past few years has uncovered a
wide range of variations in these genes that have mild effects on individuals, rather than causing DSDs. Biologically, its
a spectrum, says Vilain.
A DSD called congenital adrenal hyperplasia
(CAH), for example, causes the body to produce
excessive amounts of male sex hormones; XX
individuals with this condition are born with
ambiguous genitalia (an enlarged clitoris and
fused labia that resemble a scrotum). It is usually
caused by a severe deficiency in an enzyme called
21-hydroxylase. But women carrying mutations
that result in a milder deficiency develop a nonclassical form of CAH, which affects about 1 in
1,000 individuals; they may have male-like facial
and body hair, irregular periods or fertility problems or they might have no obvious symptoms at all. Another gene,
NR5A1, is currently fascinating researchers because variations in it cause a
wide range of effects10, from underdeveloped gonads to mild hypospadias
in men, and premature menopause in women.
Many people never discover their condition unless they seek help for
infertility, or discover it through some other brush with medicine. Last
year, for example, surgeons reported that they had been operating on a
hernia in a man, when they discovered that he had a womb11. The man
was 70, and had fathered four children.

Subtle differences
such as low sperm
production. Some
caused by variation
in sex-development
genes.

is a physically typical male, but if most cells are X, the result is a female
with a condition called Turners syndrome, which tends to result in
restricted height and underdeveloped ovaries. This kind of mosaicism
is rare, affecting about 1 in 15,000 people.
The effects of sex-chromosome mosaicism range from the prosaic
to the extraordinary. A few cases have been documented in which a
mosaic XXY embryo became a mix of two cell types some with two
X chromosomes and some with two Xs and a Y and then split early in
development12. This results in identical twins of different sexes.
There is a second way in which a person can end up with cells of different chromosomal sexes. Jamess patient was a chimaera: a person who
develops from a mixture of two fertilized eggs, usually owing to a merger
between embryonic twins in the womb. This kind of chimaerism resulting in a DSD is extremely rare, representing about 1% of all DSD cases.
Another form of chimaerism, however, is now known to be widespread. Termed microchimaerism, it happens when stem cells from a
fetus cross the placenta into the mothers body, and vice versa. It was first
identified in the early 1970s but the big surprise came more than two
decades later, when researchers discovered how
long these crossover cells survive, even though
they are foreign tissue that the body should, in
theory, reject. A study in 1996 recorded women
with fetal cells in their blood as many as 27 years
after giving birth13; another found that maternal
cells remain in children up to adulthood14. This
type of work has further blurred the sex divide,
because it means that men often carry cells from
their mothers, and women who have been pregnant with a male fetus can carry a smattering of
its discarded cells.
Microchimaeric cells have been found in
many tissues. In 2012, for example, immunologist Lee Nelson and her team at the University of Washington in Seattle
found XY cells in post-mortem samples of womens brains15. The oldest
woman carrying male DNA was 94 years old. Other studies have shown
that these immigrant cells are not idle; they integrate into their new environment and acquire specialized functions, including (in mice at least)
forming neurons in the brain16. But what is not known is how a peppering
of male cells in a female, or vice versa, affects the health or characteristics
of a tissue for example, whether it makes the tissue more susceptible
to diseases more common in the opposite sex. I think thats a great question, says Nelson, and it is essentially entirely unaddressed. In terms of
human behaviour, the consensus is that a few male microchimaeric cells
in the brain seem unlikely to have a major effect on a woman.
Scientists are now finding that XX and XY cells behave in different
ways, and that this can be independent of the action of sex hormones.
To tell you the truth, its actually kind of surprising how big an effect
of sex chromosomes weve been able to see, says Arnold. He and his
colleagues have shown17 that the dose of X chromosomes in a mouses
body can affect its metabolism, and studies in a lab dish suggest18 that
XX and XY cells behave differently on a molecular level, for example
with different metabolic responses to stress. The next challenge, says

SURGEONS
DISCOVERED THAT THE
MAN HAD A WOMB.
HE WAS 70.

CELLULAR SEX

Studies of DSDs have shown that sex is no simple dichotomy. But things
become even more complex when scientists zoom in to look at individual cells. The common assumption that every cell contains the same
set of genes is untrue. Some people have mosaicism: they develop from
a single fertilized egg but become a patchwork of cells with different
genetic make-ups. This can happen when sex chromosomes are doled
out unevenly between dividing cells during early embryonic development. For example, an embryo that starts off as XY can lose a Y chromosome from a subset of its cells. If most cells end up as XY, the result

Affects 1 in
250400 births.

The hormonal disorder


persistent Mllerian
duct syndrome results
in male external
genitals and testes,
but also a womb and
Fallopian tubes.

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FEATURE NEWS

Chromosomes

Ovotesticular DSD

46,XX testicular DSD

Moderate variations

Subtle variations

Typical female

XX, XY or mix of both

XX

XX

XX

XX

Gonads

Both ovarian and


testicular tissue

Genitals

Ambiguous

Other
characteristics/
examples

Rare reports of
predominantly XY
people conceiving
and bearing a
healthy child.

Small testes

Ovaries

Ovaries

Ovaries

Male external
genitals

Female internal and


external genitals

Female internal and


external genitals

Usually caused by
presence of male
sex-determining
gene SRY.

Variations in sex
development such as
premature shutdown of
ovaries. Some caused
by variation in
sex-development genes.

Subtle differences
such as excess male
sex hormones or
polycystic ovaries.

Female internal
and external
genitals

Arnold, is to uncover the mechanisms. His team is studying the handful


of X-chromosome genes now known to be more active in females than
in males. I actually think that there are more sex differences than we
know of, says Arnold.

BEYOND THE BINARY

Biologists may have been building a more nuanced view of sex, but society has yet to catch up. True, more than half a century of activism from
members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community has
softened social attitudes to sexual orientation and gender. Many societies are now comfortable with men and women crossing conventional
societal boundaries in their choice of appearance, career and sexual
partner. But when it comes to sex, there is still intense social pressure to
conform to the binary model.
This pressure has meant that people born with clear DSDs often
undergo surgery to normalize their genitals. Such surgery is controversial because it is usually performed on babies, who are too young
to consent, and risks assigning a sex at odds with the childs ultimate
gender identity their sense of their own gender. Intersex advocacy
groups have therefore argued that doctors and parents should at least
wait until a child is old enough to communicate their gender identity,
which typically manifests around the age of three, or old enough to
decide whether they want surgery at all.
This issue was brought into focus by a lawsuit filed in South Carolina
in May 2013 by the adoptive parents of a child known as MC, who
was born with ovotesticular DSD, a condition that produces ambiguous genitalia and gonads with both ovarian and testicular tissue. When
MC was 16 months old, doctors performed surgery to assign the child
as female but MC, who is now eight years old, went on to develop a
male gender identity. Because he was in state care at the time of his treatment, the lawsuit alleged not only that the surgery constituted medical
malpractice, but also that the state denied him his constitutional right to
bodily integrity and his right to reproduce. Last month, a court decision
prevented the federal case from going to trial, but a state case is ongoing.
This is potentially a critically important decision for children born
with intersex traits, says Julie Greenberg, a specialist in legal issues relating to gender and sex at Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego,
California. The suit will hopefully encourage doctors in the United States
to refrain from performing operations on infants with DSDs when there
are questions about their medical necessity, she says. It could raise awareness about the emotional and physical struggles intersex people are
forced to endure because doctors wanted to help us fit in, says Georgiann
Davis, a sociologist who studies issues surrounding intersex traits and
gender at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, who was born with CAIS.
Doctors and scientists are sympathetic to these concerns, but the MC
case also makes some uneasy because they know how much is still to
be learned about the biology of sex19. They think that changing medical practice by legal ruling is not ideal, and would like to see more data
collected on outcomes such as quality of life and sexual function to help
decide the best course of action for people with DSDs something that
researchers are starting to do.
Diagnoses of DSDs once relied on hormone tests, anatomical

Female
secondary
sexual
characteristics

inspections and imaging, followed by painstaking tests of one gene at a


time. Now, advances in genetic techniques mean that teams can analyse
multiple genes at once, aiming straight for a genetic diagnosis and making the process less stressful for families. Vilain, for example, is using
whole-exome sequencing which sequences the protein-coding regions
of a persons entire genome on XY people with DSDs. Last year, his
team showed20 that exome sequencing could offer a probable diagnosis
in 35% of the study participants whose genetic cause had been unknown.
Vilain, Harley and Achermann say that doctors are taking an increasingly circumspect attitude to genital surgery. Children with DSDs are
treated by multidisciplinary teams that aim to tailor management and
support to each individual and their family, but this usually involves raising a child as male or female even if no surgery is done. Scientists and
advocacy groups mostly agree on this, says Vilain: It might be difficult
for children to be raised in a gender that just does not exist out there. In
most countries, it is legally impossible to be anything but male or female.
Yet if biologists continue to show that sex is a spectrum, then society
and state will have to grapple with the consequences, and work out
where and how to draw the line. Many transgender and intersex activists
dream of a world where a persons sex or gender is irrelevant. Although
some governments are moving in this direction, Greenberg is pessimistic about the prospects of realizing this dream in the United States, at
least. I think to get rid of gender markers altogether or to allow a third,
indeterminate marker, is going to be difficult.
So if the law requires that a person is male or female, should that sex
be assigned by anatomy, hormones, cells or chromosomes, and what
should be done if they clash? My feeling is that since there is not one
biological parameter that takes over every other parameter, at the end
of the day, gender identity seems to be the most reasonable parameter,
says Vilain. In other words, if you want to know whether someone is
male or female, it may be best just to ask.
Claire Ainsworth is a freelance writer based in Hampshire, UK.
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